Using Parties to Gain Publicity

New Orleans is a town known for its parties, so perhaps it’s no surprise that an annual gala brunch is Parkway Partners’ secret to good media relations. Since 1984, journalists and media executives at the non-profit’s annual fundraiser have been treated to a feast replete with specialty dishes from the city’s top restaurants, a jazz band, and all the moguls, politicians, and corporate bigwigs they can cram into the former city hall. Usually held the Sunday before election day in November, “Feast with the Stars” is a jazz brunch which typically features 70 to 80 local media personalities, who volunteer to work the door or pour drinks, local politicians, and 300 guests paying $50 a plate for the privilege of being in their company.

Developed as a way to thank the press and acknowledge them for all they do for the community (and Parkway Partners), the brunch is held in a classic restored building erected in the 1840s. If a fancy hall and all the local journalists in the city weren’t enough, 20 local hotels donate their restaurant’s signature dish to the event, along with a chef and a booth, which they design themselves, often quite elaborately.

Everything is donated, so the cost to Parkway Partners is quite low, although their standards for the event remain high. Elegant invitations and decorations are provided by professional designers, while flowers and liquor are donated by local corporations. The city contributes support for the printing and mailing costs of invites and thank you notes, as well as allowing the non-profit free use of the building. Photographers come and take everyone’s picture, which are then sent back to the attendees as gifts.

Although the event is established and very well-attended, “we do a lot of pre-event publicity,” says Paula Dickey Berault, executive director of Parkway Partners, “plugging the event in local newspapers, magazines, TV morning and news shows and the like.” Berault usually appears herself, taking a chef with her, who prepares one of the meals being featured at the brunch. Morning television shows take to this approach, in part because they like to run a cooking segment several times a week.

But according to Berault, it’s the coverage of the event during and afterwards that really generates publicity. Guests are featured on all the society pages in citywide and neighborhood newspapers, and the event is well-documented on television. People reporting live from the scene, combined with the heady political atmosphere generated by the presence of candidates and incumbents just before Election Day, give the affair a certain spark.

The event’s live jazz band and attention on food helps Parkway Partners keep the mood genial and light. Despite the mingling of journalists and politicians, there is no political wrangling at the gala. Berault sees this as one reason why politicians come to the event, although their motivation is already well-established because it is a good opportunity to talk to important people. To ensure his attendance, the mayor is always the honorary chairman of the brunch.

Last year Parkway Partners held a silent auction at the brunch, which was received enthusiastically. One hundred different items were auctioned off, including symphony tickets, hotel stays, airline tickets, books about the city, and meals at local restaurants. The auction raised approximately $8,000, and will become a standard feature of the event.

Although the whole affair raises funds for Parkway Partners ($20,000 in 1998, for example), the jazz brunch is really more a publicity event than a fundraiser, says Berault. In all, the event coverage probably reaches 200,000 people, and “the communication lines that are opened up with the media are extremely valuable,” she notes. “From the producers and directors to the line reporters, we meet and get to know everyone. And no one else in town does anything like it.”

Originally published in Park Talk, the newsletter for PPS’ Urban Parks Institute.

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